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The scariest part of ‘The Vow’ is that it makes a cult look consensual

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“There’s a Jewish word, mishpucha, which means family. As soon as I met Lauren, I knew she was mishpucha,” Sarah Edmondson says of Lauren Salzman, the woman who would eventually coerce her to brand her pelvis in an excruciating initiation rite into a secretive enclave billing itself as a women’s empowerment group.

It’s a particularly jarring moment in “The Vow,” the HBO docuseries detailing the rise and fall of the alleged sex cult known as NXIVM (pronounced “NEX-ee-um”), the leaders of which were put on trial in 2019 for charges including racketeering and trafficking. The show documents the rise of the organization and its charismatic leader, Keith Raniere; it also follows several formerly high ranking NXIVM leaders, including Edmondson, as they discover abuses in the organization and defect. It’s specifically Edmondson’s abuse at the hands of her trusted friend that shocks the group of leaders into condemning the organization to which they had devoted their lives.

Yet despite the atrocities, the show also, perhaps too compellingly, showcases the group’s allure. “The Vow” empathizes with participants who are wooed by the group’s mission and its charismatic leader, putting us in their shoes. And despite the series’ salacious material — allegations against NXIVM run the gamut from ritual branding to sex trafficking to tax fraud — the series moves slowly, unveiling evidence of malpractice only sporadically. That tactic can make it difficult to connect the dots between instances of coercion or unethical behavior, and at times undercuts the series’ efforts to build a damning case against the organization.

NXIVM’s abuse revolved around intimate relationships — like Edmondson’s with Salzman — which it encouraged, then leveraged to manipulate its members. For those who realized the abuses of the group, escaping it required rejecting and betraying people with whom they had become extraordinarily close; Salzman was in Edmondson’s wedding, but condemned her after she left the group. Perhaps even more painfully, it required leaders like Edmondson, who had founded a NXIVM center in her hometown of Vancouver, to reject the philosophies to which they had devoted their lives.

NXIVM introduced participants to those tenets through what the organization called the Executive Success Program (ESP), which they billed as a supposedly scientific protocol designed to encourage nebulously-defined “breakthroughs.” Many adherents considered participation in the program an ethical mission, believing it helped people deal with emotional issues to reach what they referred to as “integration,” a state akin to enlightenment. Participants called Raniere “Vanguard” and were told he had one of the highest IQs in the world; they wore colored silk scarves marking their rise through the organization’s hierarchy. At first, the docuseries makes the whole thing sound a little touchy-feely, but not much crazier than some L.A. yoga studios.

But the show slowly sprinkles in more disturbing facts. Rumors abound of a secretive enclave, known as DOS, which touts women’s empowerment but asks for collateral — blackmail material such as nude photos — from potential members before they’re even told the details of what they’re joining.

As those rumors are substantiated, the show reveals that DOS is organized in tiers of “masters” and “slaves,” the latter of which are charged to recruit more women to become slaves so they can, in turn, become masters — a classic pyramid structure stolen from multilevel marketing businesses, the influence of which is present throughout NXIVM. Leaders encourage extreme dieting. Then there’s the brand, a symbol that contains the initials of Keith Raniere as well as DOS leader Allison Mack, an actress who pled guilty to racketeering charges associated with NXIVM in 2019. Women in the group are challenged to seduce Raniere. Slaves must be available to masters at all hours.

From the outside, the group can look like it’s at least technically consensual. Friends draft each other into it, assuring new recruits that the program, intense as it is, has changed their lives for the better and empowered them. While many DOS participants are tentative, others are clearly excited to join; even as we are told of the group’s manipulative tactics, it is difficult to pinpoint exactly when encouragement turns to coercion. In one episode, Edmondson, in tears, remembers wanting to flee the branding ceremony, and Salzman pushing her to go through with it. Yet she also recalls being proud of herself for doing it.

My initial readiness to condemn the group got muddled as the series continued to emphasize NXIVM’s appeal. Yes, there were questionable business practices — Raniere’s board, at one point, was entirely populated by women he was sleeping with — but it didn’t seem extreme enough to warrant the attention. The branding and sexual practices are off-putting, to say the least, but Raniere plays it off as simply akin to BDSM, or other forms of kink. (The important distinction: BDSM communities emphasize free consent, whereas NXIVM coerced its consent, a serious difference that the series fails to highlight.) Most importantly, Raniere himself is hard to square with the menacing practices of which he stands accused. How could this short, schlubby guy, who in many shots sports a frizzy ponytail and sweatband, be a charismatic master of sex and manipulation?

Those questions, of course, are evidence of the insidiousness of successful manipulation. The series suggests that its viewers, too, could have bought into Raniere’s cult of genius, ended up pouring thousands of dollars into his courses, adopted a grueling routine because he told them “love is only measured by pain,” or believed they were the reincarnations of Nazis.

But by so fully empathizing with the perspective of those who bought into NXIVM, the show fails to pull together a clear, cohesive picture of the organization’s abusiveness. While other coverage of the group has included a plethora of strange practices and punishments, the series makes only brief mention of many of them. Lauren Salzman, for example, features only in the episode describing Edmondson’s branding; the series fails to reference her extensive testimony against Raniere, in which she described in detail the years of emotional manipulation she suffered at his hands. A woman who was allegedly locked in a room for anywhere from 18 to 24 months isn’t even mentioned.

After the defectors leave NXIVM, “The Vow” chronicles their response to a New York Times exposé based on their testimony. Reading the article, one former NXIVM member worries that it gives Raniere’s manipulative ability short shrift. But, ironically, the show gives even less attention to Raniere’s shocking abuses; they are treated almost as an afterthought, mentioned only in passing. While most media coverage went to great lengths to expose Raniere’s manipulation, the show mostly quotes Raniere extolling his own philosophy. After demonstrating how appealing NXIVM could be, the series never pulls its straggling threads of evidence of wrongdoing together.

That flaw mirrors exactly what was so wily about the whole set up of NXIVM: it blurs the issue of consent via some of the same kinds of emotional manipulations that drew people to the group. It becomes hard to identify the violations.

With a whole nine-part series to work with, producers should have connected the dots more clearly. While it’s understandable that producers were unable to get interviews with the ringleaders who were on trial, such as Mack, Raniere, Nancy Salzman or Clare Bronfman — the latter of whom was recently sentenced to 81 months in prison on charges of identity theft and immigration fraud — they could have given more examples of their misbehavior. One defector, Mark Vicente, a documentary filmmaker, had been recording conversations and NXIVM gatherings for years, footage which was heavily mined for the HBO series. It’s difficult to believe there weren’t more damning scenes in his extensive collection.

Without clear conclusions from the series, what can viewers learn about what made NXIVM so effective — and so noxious? The key lies in the fact that the entire operation was designed to put participants in extremely vulnerable emotional states, and to push them to build trusting relationships with their superiors. The connection that springs from intense emotional exposure births a deep trust that makes for easy influencing. And the more participants bought into the program, the closer they were allowed to Raniere, so that by the time they met him, he was fully deified.

The NXIVM story is, at its heart, not too different from that of an emotionally abusive relationship, albeit on a much larger scale. This is why its abuses are hard to call out: they are about subtle power dynamics, rather than flagrant misdeeds. The group was so successful at concealing its true nature that even the FBI told one of the defectors that since everything was consensual, there was nothing they could do. (The agency eventually took on an investigation into NXIVM, a decision that followed the #MeToo-era pivot in public opinion on issues of harassment.)

At its best, this series could have served as a story that clarifies what consent should look like, examining nuanced questions of power dynamics and coercion. Instead, it muddles through the evidence, giving too much credence to NXIVM’s appeal and not enough attention to its coercive tactics, ultimately missing the big picture.

The Vow was renewed for a second season on October 16, focusing on Raniere and revelations that came to light during the trial.

Mira Fox is a fellow at the Forward. Contact her at fox@forward.com

HBO’s NXIVM series ‘The Vow’ misunderstands consent

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The scariest part of ‘The Vow’ is that it makes a cult look consensual

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